Friday, December 27, 2013

Significant Work

Almost all scholars publish work that is less significant, and many publish some significant work. I suspect (but do not know) that even the most accomplished have a ratio of something like 3:1, less-significant to significant.

In part, we cannot know ahead of time just which of our contributions will be influential, which will be path-breaking. For, by definition, the significance of work depends on how it is received by its audience of other scholars, whether in the next few years, or in decades. If there is a prepared audience, whether it be the discovery of a particle or a cure, you may well receive kudos. But if an audience has to be prepared, and earlier work has not yet awakened them, you will have to do lots of proselytizing. If you challenge an orthodoxy, you will have a prepared but skeptical audience. If you confirm what everyone believes (but in fact the evidence is not so substantial until your work appears), you have a prepared but bored audience and will get less credit than you deserve. 

Monographic studies in the humanities or in mathematics or in some of the natural sciences will take longer to be assessed than the reception of journal articles. But, in some fields it is only monographic studies that provide the level of detail and support to make the argument serious enough to demand attention. And of course, you must give talks, appear at meetings, etc, to convince people you are serious. Not always, if what you have done is on its face a great contribution--but this is rare. A major contribution to mathematics, such as those of Wiles or Perelman, will be immediately assessed for its correctness, but this may take months of work by the strongest people in the field. Still, its influence will often be a matter of how the methods and objects developed in the proof are useful in other contexts. 

It helps to have lots of work to do, so that as things take their time in being assessed and being influential, you are not waiting. You finish a book, it comes out, and you start another while doing your talks and publicity. You have a series of articles to work on. Or, you are exhausted and rest for months and do not get in the fray. You will need to respond to questions and queries, and you may need to keep abreast of other's work related to yours. But what's crucial is not to be waiting. If redoing your kitchen or going duck hunting work for you, fine. Get married, attend to your children and parents, improve your musicianship. 

In the longer run, you will do more work. You may be awarded recognition. But what counts is the work you keep on doing, your children, and your students.

No comments: